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"You see it, over there?”
Beth Sheila Kent points out a greyish-white gull gliding beyond the cliffs of the Barachois in New Waterford. It is one of many diving in and out of the crashing ocean waves.
“That’s an Iceland gull. You can always tell them by the lack of any darker colour in the wing tips and when they’re at rest, they have bright red legs and feet.”
Kent identifies several species of ducks for me as well, including the American wigeon (“you can tell them easily because the males have a beautiful wide head stripe that’s bright white”), the common eider (“with their sloped foreheads and the big bills”), a male long-tailed duck (“the males are beautiful, black and white, and the females are brown and white, a very rich brown”), a female tufted duck and an American black duck.
Birding is her life’s passion, and she has been doing it for most of that, “60-something years.”
“It’s just study, constant study. … I live for birding.”
Cape Breton’s annual Harbour Hop is a chance to share her avocation with “like-minded individuals.”
“All of the people that come out to these field trips are very interested in birds, they're interested in nature in general, in the environment in particular.”
The sixth annual Harbour Hop this past Sunday drew in roughly two dozen such passionate environmentalists and birders, who came masked-up and ready to identify and observe the gulls and boldly-coloured diving ducks that migrate to Cape Breton and winter here.
The birds are drawn to the ecosystems that form around Cape Breton’s wastewater, because they snack on the plants and small animals that feed upon the nutrients in our waste.
Jen Cooper, project manager at ACAP Cape Breton, said the educational event, held in conjunction with CBRM wastewater operations, is a chance to help people understand how the water they use is connected to the island’s wetlands and water ecosystems, where wastewater ultimately ends up.
She said hopefully “it helps people to make better decisions at home. Maybe they choose to use biodegradable cleaners, or not flush things that don’t belong down the toilet.”
The Harbour Hop was held caravan-style this year, with participants staying in their own cars when travelling from location-to-location, wearing masks and distancing.
“It’s really quite nice actually. … Some of these people have been here the whole six years (of the event). And we do look forward to it even though it’s freezing cold,” Cooper said.
Dave McCorquodale, a biology professor at Cape Breton University, was leading the tour alongside David Harris of CBC’s The Bird Hour.
“I think winter birding in Cape Breton is great. … We get all sorts of Iceland gulls, that's one of my favourite birds, and they come down from Baffin Island, Ellesmere Island, spend the winter here, and like any other gulls here they're scavenging for fish, and with a bit of open water there's lots of them,” said McCorquodale.
He said seeing the birds is his favourite part of doing the Harbour Hop, as well as meeting people with similar interests.
“You’ve gotta appreciate that these birds are making a living here in the middle of winter, and there’s lots of them.”
Harris’s favourite duck is the merganser, and his favourite bird is the Pileated woodpecker. He loves that the annual Harbour Hop gives people a chance to see birds up close, learn a little bit more about them and “hopefully get them interested in looking at more birds.”
And what does Kent love most about birding?
“Well first of all, of course you're getting into the outdoors which is always a good thing. But secondly, I really believe that birds are one of God's greatest creatures with the power of flight, and they're exceptionally intelligent individual creatures. And I just, I have the greatest respect for them, I just find them fascinating.”
Jessica Smith is a climate change/environmental and natural resources reporter with the Cape Breton Post.